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Widecombe History Group Talk
Dartmoor Prison Bicentenary
Simon Dell gave us a fascinating talk on 6th July on the topic of Dartmoor Prison. Simon retired after 30 years in the police force and has an extensive knowledge on his topic.
In 1775 the Turnpike Act saw the start of roads over Dartmoor. In 1785 the first buildings of Prince’s Town were started. An isolated part of the Moor owned by the then Prince Regent, who was also the Duke of Cornwall and Prince of Wales.
The Prince Regent had a friend called Thomas Tyrwhitt (knighted in 1812) who he made Auditor to the Duchy of Cornwall, among other titles (He became MP for Okehampton in 1796).
Tyrwhitt had a vision to commercialise and make land suitable for agriculture. As Prince’s Town started to expand the Plume of Feathers was built in 1785. Sadly, Tyrwhitt’s vision didn’t work. He needed another vision.
The war with France gave him that opportunity. French prisoners were held in prison hulks on the Tamar. Concern was raised about the possibility of a French force liberating these prisoners and then invading Britain as well as carrying contagious disease on to the mainland. Tyrwhitt put forward the suggestion of a prison on Dartmoor.
Daniel Alexander was the architect and, most importantly, Samuel Prout drew a social record of the construction. The prison was started in 1806 and finished in 1809. Capt. Cotgrave was the first Governor, from 1809 to 1812. He was followed by Capt. Shortlands. On his arrival at the prison he was appalled at the large amount of human bones lying in the surrounding countryside. These were all gathered up and split into two piles. One was designated French POWs and the other American POWs. Dartmoor Prison has the only American Cemetery in this country. There is also a cemetery for the French POWs.
Over the entrance is the quote “Spare the Vanquished”. Water was supplied by Walkham head waters which became known as the Prison Leat. The prisoners were marched from Plymouth to the new prison. Many died on en route. The POW officers were housed around Devon in villages. They could only walk one mile in any direction from the centre of the village.
As the Americans were trading with France and did not stop just because of the war, their ships became targets as well and many Americans were pressed into the British Navy and many were sent to Dartmoor. At its height Dartmoor had 15,000 prisoners in a prison designed to take 1000. In 1812 war with France ended and the French sent ships to take their fellow citizens home. This left the American prisoners, now American Citizens, still in Dartmoor. 1815 saw the Dartmoor Prison massacre. Many citizens of the USA were killed and 65 were injured. After this they were repatriated with the black citizens having to wait for the whites to be repatriated first. 1846 saw the Penal Servitude Act which stopped the transportation of prisoners. Dartmoor Prison has the only American Cemetery in this country. There is also a cemetery for the French POWs.
In 1850 Dartmoor became a convict prison. Prisoners would have to break rock from a cubic foot to gravel, they pulled ploughs and made pastures.
The prison closed at the outbreak of WW1. In 1916 it was opened again to house Conscientious Objectors, they were released in 1919 and the prison became a convict prison again.
1932 saw another prison riot and all records were destroyed. Escapees were tracked by Mrs. Blakeston’s Bloodhounds. Frankie Richardson, part of the Kray’s gang, was sprung from Dartmoor and rumour has it he is now part of the foundations of the Chiswick Flyover! A riot in 1991 resulted in the death of one prisoner.
The review of the prison has been decided and the lease from the Duchy of Cornwall will not be renewed. Inevitably this will lead to the closure of Dartmoor Prison in the near future.
A question after the talk was: When did Prince’s Town become Princetown?’ It was felt that was with the arrival of the railways.
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